Public toilets have a duty to be accessible, poetry does not.
“Public toilets have a duty to be accessible, poetry does not.”
As quoted by Nicholas Lezard, here:
Nicholas Lezard hails the later work of one of the truly essential poets, John Ashbery, as he reviews Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems, by John Ashbery. (Guardian Unlimited)
Saturday November 24, 2007
Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems, by John Ashbery (Carcanet, £12.95)
You may, on reading Ashbery's work, be reminded of John Cage's infuriating remark: “I have nothing to say and I am saying it, and that is poetry.” Let me give you an example: the first stanza of Ashbery's poem “This Room.”
The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.
So, what's all that about? You learn quickly, reading an Ashbery poem, that the word "about" isn't exactly the right tool with which to evaluate it. However, you also find that, once started, an Ashbery poem is hard to put down or dismiss. You might not understand what he is saying, but he has a tonal directness, an almost conversational charm, which makes reading him a pleasure.
I admit that I imagined it would be an easy matter to concoct a pastiche of Ashbery that would be indistinguishable from the real thing. I would put it in this review and pass it off as his and see if anyone spotted it. But, leaving ethical considerations aside, it turned out not to be as easy as I thought. Nor was it a simple matter to find a poem that would serve as the essential illustration of Ashbery's quality. For the poems here - a self-selection from his last 10 collections since 1987 - are well-chosen: they do not repeat themselves. One sometimes has the sense that Ashbery's poems are all part of the same monologue, or the same side of one long overheard conversation, and that one can tear them off as if from an endless roll.
Of course, his work is unmistakably his. The tone is so intimate and easy (they all begin with a hook that draws you in, in spite of yourself), and so at odds with the evasive relationship to reason, the frisson of disconcertment his progressions cause and involve. Each of his poems takes us for a ride, in the two main senses of the term: one of the pleasures in his work is that of making us feel like Dylan's Mr Jones, where something is going on but we don't know what it is.
I do not want to give the impression that his work is meaningless, or that there is a letter sitting in a New York lawyer's office waiting to be opened upon Ashbery's death ("To whom it may concern: I was having you all on"). There are nuggets of sense waiting to be picked out and savoured. His feel for language, its rhythms and cadences, is exquisite: it is almost as if this is what he wants us to concentrate on, above all else - the poetry that resides in the very words we use. "And where do the scraps / Of meaning come from?" he asks in "April Galleons". A good question. And the poem begins with one of his most arresting sentences: "Something was burning." This asks of us what it means to pay attention, to be alerted to something that we don't initially comprehend.
In the end, it is the mystery we appreciate. Or at least I do. Great poetry, as TS Eliot said, can communicate before it is understood: Ashbery communicates in a way that both pays homage to language and transcends it at the same time. He is also in the business of evading categories. The only label that has stuck to him - apart from his obvious indebtedness to Wallace Stevens - is that he belongs to the "New York School" of poets. And all that means is that he was one of a group of poets who started getting noticed in the 1950s in, er, New York.
I concede that £12.95 is a steep price to pay for what many will consider to be insurmountably baffling. But bafflement is part of the condition of modern poetry, and if there's a modern poet you need on your shelves, and in your head, it's Ashbery. As Geoffrey Hill - also an essential poet - once said, public toilets have a duty to be accessible, poetry does not.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007